Yesterday I found myself in a long debate/discussion at our back doorstep with a developer who plans to raze an older duplex next door to shoehorn in five luxury priced condos into a lot where the residence and a lush yard filled with fruit trees, blooming gigantic cacti, and animals have long called home. It’s such a beautiful space, our neighbors recently snuck into the vacated backyard to get quickly married in a secret ceremony amongst the bird, flowers, butterflies, and blue skies above. It’s where Emily regularly sneaks away into to observe the local birds, insects, and occasional wandering mammal, to simply enjoy the skies above. The impending loss is a tragic realization – a predicament outlining a problem – one which admittedly recognizes the social contract of living in a metropolis where the landscape is forever being changed and manipulated (even in one of its more suburban corners). This is a drama unfolding everywhere, including in our very own backyard.
I’m increasingly attracted by the idea that there can be at least small pockets where life and character and beauty and meaning continue. If I could help protect one of those from destruction, maybe that would be enough. Maybe it would be more than most people do. – Paul Kingsnorth
When Morrissey copped Emerson and crooned , “Nature is a language…can’t you read?“, it was a desperate question of predicament presenting the diametric opposition of human nature to nature itself. It’s also a question I increasingly seem to ask of everyone around me.
“Oh, cutting down those trees won’t affect anything…the animals will find a home somewhere else!”, “Yeah, I like nature…that’s why we plan to put in a nice lawn and garden in the front of our development”, “We think we’re making life better in your neighborhood…we’re providing more housing” [note: these multi-unit residences without a yard will sell for $600K+ and are styled in a cookie-cutter architectural vocabulary completely out of place amongst both its immediate neighbors and within the parameters of the 90039].
One of the small neighbors set to be evicted from their home next door. Photo: Emily Ho
Development is going to happen, it’s a reality of life. Creating housing for more people to live happily and at a sustainable cost is at the heart of why I initially studied environmental architecture in college. But despite PR attempts to put lipstick on the pig, the majority of developers – and even architects – aren’t guided by making life better for others. Property development is an opportunistic field [see: Donald Sterling], one serving a need for a profit always bordering the extremes, and one where most concessions related to the neighborhood, let alone nature, are minor at best. Market driven motivations have no room for the aretê, the recognition of the innate excellence and importance of all things around us. To be force fed, “No…you don’t realize it could have been worse…by law we’re allowed to build even higher and bigger!” isn’t just unpalatable, it’s a symptom of a society where every permissible boundary is where projects begin and end.
Developing a community can be done differently. Village Homes in Davis, CA is a 60 acre, 242-Unit Mixed Residential “Garden Village” incorporating ecological and social features, including a parks, recreational features, a day-care facility, community gardens, and landscaping which works in conjunction with the environment. 17 acres of community gardens and orchards create interaction between residents, establishing a lifestyle much different from the “heads down, leave me alone” lifestyle prevalent in cities where population density has pushed upward and outward at all expense.
In my hour long talk with this developer representative, I realized she manifested a complete ignorance of how uprooting old trees affects the lives built around it, where pushing out wildlife could be tallied as a minor casualty, and the belief population density is an end solution (rather than a myopic symptom). Our worlds and experiences, as tenant and developer, local and non-local, exist too far apart.
As presented the proposed development isn’t a necessary solution or a betterment of the community, yet repeatedly sold as an “exciting project” (unsurprisingly, those in the community are a bit underwhelmed). From her perspective an opportunity not taken is an opportunity lost, and it tends to be a rule rather than an exception today where urbanist idealism orbits anthro-centric visions of cities “yet to be” at the exchange of a “world disappearing now”. Even my concessionary recommendation of asking them to reconsider incorporating green space/gardens instead of trying to eke out every square inch of the property were met with an incredulous, “Why? That’s why we built rooftop decks for the residents!”. Yeah.
The predicament we find ourselves is one where we keep lying to ourselves: “if we build more/better, things will work out”. But Mies van der Rohe had it right in regard to every design, including urban development: less is more. Progress dictates that we must move forward full steam ahead, yet it seems the more built, the less we seem to gain in long term value, and in the process we unwittingly hurt our own interests until they’ve become irreversibly worsened [see: China]. We can’t design ourselves out of these problems of overpopulation, loss of wildlife, and an increasing scarcity of natural resources…it’s time to un-design this world and allow back some negative space into our existence.